I tend to like what few others like, cherish what few others cherish, relish in that which is found tenaciously acceptable by not very many people. Music for Airports may be an adequate example: not the most widely appraised album by Brian Eno, Eno himself a skilled ambient composer known only to some, approved of by the select ones, very few ones who are impervious to either peer pressure or the disturbing redundancy of noise. Out of his work, Eno’s beginnings are material for the ones who like digging up the past; out of that past, Music for Airports (thought of in the, if we are to believe Eno, uninspiring environment of airport lounges at Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, or simply Cologne or Köln) revels in mysterious melancholy; out of the track listing I like the underplayed, underenjoyed, exquisitely chromatic 2/2. Six minutes of sound and thirty seconds of silence are enough to cause fascination. And yet, but for the very few, oblivion has pronounced sentence and there this beauty of a track lies, uninvited.
As much as one would like to justify the election of such a banal title, Welcome to New York, for a film that deals with the demise of a high-ranking IMF official, the name is but a few ritual words coolly falling from a flight attendant’s, immigration officer’s or concierge’s mouth. I understand the more than appropriate set of initials that identify the central character cannot be attached to his cinematic persona. The movie is but a description of an ordinary male’s idea of paradise and his being expelled from it not on account of transgression but of lack of self-restraint. Nothing memorable, except for a few points of discussion here and there that emerge directly from the story, or more accurately put, from the way the story is presented.
Firstly, Depardieu is, once again, a master actor. He is probably the best choice to play DSK: he is as fat, as repulsive, as manipulative and cunningly maneuvering as the real man is. He is, as an actor, immense; when he eventually passes away, together with his happy few, his band of brothers (Pacino, Irons, De Niro, Hoffman and not very many others I will skip for reasons of laziness and ignorance of the art of acting), we will probably hope actors will mercifully be replaced by perfected digital animation. The rest, the wide and multitudinous rest, is just miles behind. They simply have no heirs where to lay the legacy to good rest and care. The torch won’t be passed, and perhaps no one will either notice or weep over it. Depardieu is outright ugly, his body has been deformed by years of self-indulging in every imaginable pleasure, just as DSK’s (one wonders whether his debauchery was not a wily, calculated strategy to fit the physique du rôle when time was due). It is a relief to confirm that beauty can be done away with when films are being made: talented unsightliness does have a place in an era of boring perfection.
Secondly, Jacqueline Bisset has not lost the touch: she plays a disheartened Lady Macbeth who watches her hopes downfall with an air of exasperation and badly feigned righteousness. She is ever on spot, ever the Machiavellian princess who has chosen to remain chastely loyal to a lower man with far more chances to become something beyond her grasp than anyone else. The typical (and in this case, useless) sacrifice the female of the human species makes (pleasure for power, joy for rank, feeling, however ephemeral, for rule) is apparent both in her anger and in her twisted facial features. She has failed, she knows she has failed, and she knows another chance will not come by in her lifetime. She calmly surrenders in slow motion as the movie progresses. There shall be not even hatred between the kingly pawn and her dejected mistress.
Lastly, lastly, there’s the question of whorishness: almost every character cast is a whore, from the oily DSK’s daughter’s fiancé to the pimps, to the ill-amused wife, to the concession speech in which DSK admits his very career has been that of a whore: the selling of fake pleasure. Those who are clearly not whores are the serfs, the peasants, the plain and dull ones who will stand for something that is not, and never has been: and idea/ideal, the ones who have no skills to whore their way up. The ones we should really be afraid of; the ones who are still waiting for a messiah.
December is so far being quite generous as regards rain and opportunities for rereading cherishable old books. I have begun with Pasternak’s Ensayo de Autobiografía (I possess the Spanish translation). So many unjustly half-forgotten names populate these brief pages that one is tempted, or should so be, to consider the book a work of reference: from Scriabin to Maiakovsky, from Mandelstam to Tsvetáieva, from Iesenin to Ajmátova. A corroboration that life before Lenin’s coup d’état was immensely hard for Russian peasantry and abysmally worse after it took place.
Chapter XIV of Part II (Before First World War) is especially worth mentioning (translation is clumsily mine). Pasternak: Two phrases were in fashion then: that life had changed for the better, the happier, and that Maiakovsky was the best and most gifted poet of our time. I thanked the author of the second phrase with a letter. She freed me from the exaggerated importance I was subjected to during the mid-thirties, when the Writers’ Congress was in full bloom. I love my life and I am perfectly satisfied with it. I hardly need it to be gilded with supplementary ornamentation. A life without secrets, lacking no purification, shiningly reflected upon a mirror like those of display cabinets, is to me inconceivable.
Maikovsky started to become compulsory, as potatoes were in times of Catherine. That was his second death. But he is hardly to blame for that.
Buenos Aires has long ceased to be snail-mail-friendly; one is kindly advised to avoid ordering stuff from abroad lest greedy customs officers exact impossibly high tolls on it. A feeble nation-state bordering on perpetual bankruptcy, forever living beyond its means and smugly proud of a central government whose task is reportedly that of a job provider duly produces punctual cyclical crises. I (almost certainly wisely) have resorted to the benefits of Kindle editions, albeit with intense pining for true paper. That tad of a chagrin stoically endured and nearly half-settled, I am in the process of reading through Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (translated by Ruth Martin). I would have loved to purchase the German original edition but, alas, the item is not to be downloaded from Argentina, legal formalities and subtleties unwilling.
The book has been written, of course, as counter-evidence to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Regardless of the fine arguments each side of the truth sets forth (whether Eichmann was, as Arendt portrays him, an obedient but lackluster, unenthusiastic cog in a genocidal machine or, as Stangneth contends, an ambitious, murderous officer who seized the chance to play the outstandingly unencumbered role fate presented him with as regards the extermination of the Jews), in spite of the unabated opposing views and considerations, one thing, one awful, shame-laden thing stands apart as a thorn in Argentina’s irregularly remorseful conscience: a haven to fleeing Nazis this country was for too long, a safe den under the tender iron fist of General Perón, ardent Mussolini’s worshiper, mild Hitler’s sympathizer and future Generalissimo Franco’s welcome exile after his ousting in 1955. Used to cynical standards, he bestowed diplomatic recognition upon the newly created State of Israel in 1948 while packs of Nazi wolves and cubs (some of them former German Luftwaffe or Waffen or Allgemeine SS veterans, some of them Croatian Ustaše, some of them Romanian Iron Guards, some of them simply butcher-hands in Läger pay) poured in unhindered. Truth be told, Perón’s Argentina was not alone in acting as a Nazi reservoir: hundreds found refuge in Chile, thousands in Brazil, many in the United States, even in Germany itself to join in the fight against Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.
A number, like Eichmann, had their covers blown; they were apprehended and stood trial. Some vanished into an uncertain fate (Joseph Mengele, thought alive as late as in the 90’s, had died in 1979), some evaded just retribution and passed away relatively unmolested.
No one, ever, showed the slightest sign of repentance.
The afterlife of books is one of the mysteries and fascinations of any library. Such words appear in midtext on Robert McCrum’s column on books and literature dated August 1st, 2010 in The Guardian. His subject matter is an examination of Francine Prose’s theory dealing with Anne Frank’s likely child prodigy status and so far hidden precociousness; he tends to concur, and quotes, in the opening lines, Philip Roth’s assertion about Frank: Kafka’s lost little daughter. McCrum wonders what will become of Anne Frank’s diary in an age of literary overproduction and decaying quality. His hopes are high, for he believes her papers belong in at least one of the three required layers a book must dwell in to stand the test of oblivion.
McCrum goes on to describe, briefly, those three desirable tenets: the first would be, as Harold Bloom might put it, the sacred texts of Western civilization: the Scripture, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Kafka. Unless sacredness is fairly deprived of its religious implications, I see no need to mingle the realm of superstition with that of high literature, I see no reason to include mid-eastern mythology or (even worse) the fable of an incarnate deity that shadows those of the Egyptian lore and Mithraism in cruder style to fit the understanding of the illiterate among King Lear, Don Quixote or Paradise Lost. As for Kafka, even a staunch admirer of his talent as I am would flinch before pronouncing such favorable sentence: his genius, although splendid, belongs indisputably to the XX century, an era in which literature concentrated on experiment and deeply rehearsed triviality in detriment of the strict continuity of the aesthetic appreciation observed until the rise of the bourgeois tradition of the unnecessarily endless and verbose XIX century novel, so overrated, if we may add. Kafka was undoubtedly neither experimental nor trivial, but his work was as tainted by the interruption of classical imitation as any other composed in his time (and ours), however brilliant. McCrum’s inclusion of Kafka is even more blatant if several examples which were left out are considered: the Greek tragedians, Homer, Dante, Virgil. I must annoyingly insist as regards McCrum’s unjust positive appraisal of the Bible in an otherwise well-written article: a religious text, even if adorned with aesthetic préciosités, has no place in literature unless its propagandistic message has grown stale. Faith is not, by any means, art: in fact, it is the opposite of art, for the latter is either self-evident or a matter of courteous disagreement, whereas faith is a topic of blind obedience or murderous submission. Only when mankind has ceased to believe in Yahweh’s wrath or the at-hand Revelations will Scripture aspire to carve a place into the Western canon.
McCrum’s second tier is even more open to contention: Zeitgeist books, as he calls them, are inextricably linked to a moment in history, usually an enduringly distressful one . He summons, however, two feeble examples: a third-rate genre writer of spy novels and Huxley, whose Brave New World is more often than not cited for sociological and conspiracy theory reasons than for literary ones.
McCrum’s quotes Francine Prose’s judgment to put forward his third category: works born out of collaboration with misfortune. They are sure to be proven right: tragedy is far more apt as a means to convey artistic emotion than happiness; the gods compound adversity so that men may sing praises to the fall. Nadezha Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Jean Améry, Reinaldo Arenas, Huber Matos, Alexander Solzhenitsyn; why not, lost and unknown in the maze the European Jewry was buried in, Kafka. The sorrows of existential anxiety are no less painful than the hardship of political persecution until despair turns into incarceration, torture and death. We underrate the suffering of the flesh while flesh is left undisturbed; if seared, we long for the days on which our blood and bones knew little discomfort.
A replica of Jet Schepp’s statue of Anne Frank in Amsterdam was unveiled yesterday in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. Oh, young woman, not only have you withstood your age and beyond, but fostered debate and veneration. That is much.
The very first time I was fortunate enough to lay my ears upon John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil about a quarter of a century ago, I was but an endeavoring student in shabby-looking quarters in London. I chanced upon a classical music magazine whose name I cannot recall but is surely now defunct, and bought it on the spot, enticed by the then-revolutionary trait the compact disc was becoming: the publication offered samples of major works brought forward by recording labels. Tavener, whose production I had come to admire since The Whale, had scored automatic admiration in me; I felt happy I was about to slide that miraculous piece of invention into an equally marveling concoction known as sound system/mini component (the technicality of the name slips off my mind), which I was paying for in punctual installments. After a repeated and awe-inspiring nocturnal listening session that stretched until late dawn I made it to the record shop and bought a copy (music larceny, which I do not approve of, was incipient and largely cumbersome if compared to acquiring the whole package with no breaching of copyright laws). I enjoyed the full work thoroughly.
I still, after so many moves around my beloved Western hemisphere, keep the disc: John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, London Symphony Orchestra, Steven Isserlis at the cello, conducted by Gennadi Roshdenstvensky, around 1988. I dusted off the piece yesterday after a much-needed bout of giving away old memories under the guise of objects. I know little about the lives, deeds and miseries of those who performed, at such gathering, at the London Symphony; Isserlis has gone down the path of musical triumph, book authoring and splendidly rare cello collecting, Roshdenstvensky is still sought after by many a composer to lead musical pieces written with anxiety and hope for him. London’s seasons have gone unchanged. I have simply grown older.